Officials and Experts Discuss Potential for Broader Opening with Iran

rhodes-atlantic-councilWASHINGTON – The Atlantic Council and the Iran Project hosted a symposium on the challenges and opportunities of working with Iran last week, covering the full spectrum of U.S.-Iran relations.

A Broader Opening

Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications in the Obama administration, delivered the keynote address. While noting the many remaining sources of friction between the U.S. and Iran, Rhodes said the U.S. needs “to continue to look for those opportunities to move the relationship forward in ways that advance our own interest, and ultimately I think would be good for the Iranian people.”

Rhodes compared the negotiations with Iran to two other nations that the administration has engaged – Cuba and Burma – and noted how each opening has been different. “In Myanmar, they decided to change the nature of their government. Cuba decided to change the nature of its relationship with the United States. Iran decided to change the nature of its nuclear program,” Rhodes stated.  However, he said, Iran opened less than the other countries and was not interested in normalization, and so the opportunities for broadening ties have been more limited.

Rhodes credited the Iranian people as a major player in the striking of the JCPOA, noting that without the election of President Rouhani, the nuclear deal would not have been sealed. According to Rhodes, “even as Iran is not a full democracy, it was an election that brought President Rouhani into office, and public opinion clearly favored a nuclear deal.”

Rhodes also emphasized the necessity of looking for opportunities to build stronger ties between the peoples of the United States and Iran. “We should continue to pursue the type of educational, cultural, and people to people openings that can build trust and ties with the Iranian people—particularly young people,” Rhodes argued.

Acting Director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the Treasury Department, John Smith, similarly indicated that the U.S. is considering opportunities to facilitate academic exchanges. “It continues to be a discussion between OFAC and the State Department to make sure we can do all we can to facilitate discussion between the United States and the Iranian people to support the proper exchanges whether they be academic or elsewhere,” said Smith.

On a separate panel, Suzanne Maloney, Deputy Director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institute, argued that the JCPOA is a “limited bargain,” and said, “I see the deal as a transactional diplomatic overture, rather than a transformational one.”  New America Foundation’s Suzanne DiMaggio, however, argued that the U.S. must think seriously about how to transform the nuclear accord from a “transactional deal” to “a potentially transformative moment in the US-Iran relationship.” DiMaggio highlighted that the US has seen “a full year of Iranian compliance of the JCPOA and two full years of compliance with the JPOA, the interim agreement,” providing a strong track record for further engagement. 

Regional Ramifications

Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, was among panelists who discussed the possibility of reducing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Riedel argued that there is one area where the nations might find common ground: the war in Yemen. “It’s not a question of trying to broker a Saudi-Iranian deal over Yemen,” Riedel said. “It’s a question of trying to help the Saudi’s find an honorable way to bring the war to an end.” He continued to argue that one of the ways to do that is “to declare that Iran’s goal of turning Yemen into a puppet of Iran has been thwarted.” Riedel later acknowledged that while Iran never intended to turn Yemen into a puppet, this makes the claim an easy one to make. “That’s how you end wars,” Riedel said. “You figure out a way to accomplish your objective even if it didn’t make a lot of sense in the beginning.” He believes that the U.S. has an opportunity to play a pacifying role by making this claim, which then would hopefully lead to the eventual end of the war.

Another prominent topic during the panel was Iran’s missile program. Many legislators in the U.S. Congress have favored escalating sanctions on Iran over its recent missile testing in the hopes of forcing concessions. J. Matthew McInnis, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said there is little the U.S. could actually do given that the missile program is largely autonomous and considered as a key deterrent. While noting that Iran’s missiles are highly inaccurate, McInnis said the “missile program is part of their existential deterrence” because of Iran’s limited military capabilities. While the U.S. “should do whatever we can to prevent Iran from improving their missiles,” he said Iran’s nuclear program and its missile program are separate issues. “[Iran] is dependent on missiles so it is much more nonnegotiable,” McInnis said.

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